- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

SONOMA, Calif. — Foie gras, the silky soft delicacy derived from the livers of force-fed geese and ducks, is stoking a battle of Epicurean ethics in Northern California.Animal rights activists are campaigning to shut down Sonoma Foie Gras, the West Coast’s only producer of the gourmet food. They’ve “rescued” ducks from the company’s Central Valley farm, posted videos of the operation on the Internet and filed suits charging animal cruelty.

Someone — the activists deny involvement — vandalized homes and a planned bistro connected to the company, causing an estimated $50,000 in damage. A business partner in the bistro was sent an ominous videotape showing his toddler son at home.

Sonoma Foie Gras owner Guillermo Gonzalez says his product is legal, his birds are well cared for and he won’t cave in to what he perceives as terrorist tactics. The company has sued activists for trespassing; the now-repaired bistro, Sonoma Saveurs, is expected to open next week.

The debate is chafing raw emotions in the San Francisco Bay area, famous for both civilized dining and civil disobedience.

Opponents of foie gras, pronounced fwah-grah and French for “fat liver,” say the gastronome’s delight creates unnecessary suffering.

“It’s just a very extreme form of cruelty,” says Kath Rogers, a member of the Animal Protection and Rescue League and one of four persons being sued by Sonoma Foie Gras. “We’ve seen some horrible things inside these farms. We’ve seen trash barrels full of dead ducks. The ducks that we’ve rescued have all been morbidly obese and in really bad shape.”

Mr. Gonzalez says his opponents are the ones who are extreme.

“What kind of message would I be sending to society if I just say well, because there’s a small group of people who don’t like what I do and they are terrorizing me, OK … I’m going to shut down,” he says.

Mr. Gonzalez got interested in foie gras production two decades ago while in his native El Salvador. He studied in France and then moved to Northern California. Mr. Gonzalez opened his business in the wine country town of Sonoma, about 45 miles north of San Francisco, and later moved farming operations inland to a ranch near Stockton.

Activists sneaked onto the farm earlier this year, taking a few ducks and shooting video of injured and dead birds and also of a feeder who appeared to be treating the birds in a rough manner.

Mr. Gonzalez says the video is misleading. He says all poultry farming involves some bird deaths and that his operation, where ducks spend several weeks in an orchard, provides better conditions than, say, large-scale chicken farms where birds are caged constantly.

Sonoma Foie Gras ships between 1,000 and 1,500 ducks a week, selling all the duck meat, not just the livers.

The force-feeding comes when ducks are 12 to 15 weeks old, and lasts about two weeks until slaughter, Mr. Gonzalez says. The ducks are kept 10 in a pen about 10 feet square — in low light to keep them calmer — and are fed twice daily.

To feed the ducks, a sitting worker grasps the bird’s head and inserts about 10 inches of pipe down its neck. An overhead funnel connected to the pipe pumps in a dose of corn mush, creating a golf ball-sized bulge as it goes down.

Foie gras foes are appalled. They say the ducks’ livers swell to 12 times their normal size, making it hard for the duck to breathe or stand. They also claim the ducks sometimes are injured by the pipes.

“Just the process itself is a cruel kind of thing — no different than having a child not wanting to eat his or her breakfast and the mother or father grabbing him by the neck and saying, ‘You’re going to eat this,’ and forcing it down the throat of the child,” says Elliot Katz of In Defense of Animals.

In Defense of Animals is joining the rescue league in the suit against Sonoma Foie Gras charging animal cruelty. The company counters that an animal-control officer who inspected the farm at activists’ request last year found the facility in good condition.

Foie gras defenders say opponents are projecting human qualities onto ducks — illustrating the disconnect between urban Americans and their food.

“You have people making decisions about food production based on a concept of animals which comes out of Disney,” says Francine Bradley, a poultry expert at the University of California at Davis.

Miss Bradley has worked with Mr. Gonzalez through the university’s cooperative extension program and gives the operation high marks. She says force-feeding mimics the gorging of migratory wild ducks and thinks people put off by it would probably be aghast if they could see the large fish that shorebirds swallow.

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